Most people only do physical therapy if they are recovering from an accident or injury. In this post I’d like to suggest that every adult should be applying the concepts of physical therapy to their daily life. Rather than treating injuries after they happen, we should be ensuring that our bodies are functioning at their full potential every day, thus preventing injuries before they happen. If you are a professional athlete you might have a personal trainer who works with you every day to make sure this is true, but most people aren’t professional athletes and don’t have access to this kind of training. Over the past decade, however, a number of these kinds of trainers have started to popularize the concepts and techniques that they use in working with athletes, making them accessible to a general audience. For lack of a better term, I will call this approach to personal fitness “mobility training.”
One reason I use the term mobility training is to avoid the term “strength training” which most people associate with body building. I used to think that weight lifting was only for people who wanted to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the truth is that it is key to mobility training as well. Mobility emphasizes the practice of moving your body through its normal range of motion while the muscles are engaged. In this sense it differs from flexibility training in which the focus is on passive muscle length. Mobility implies muscular control. While you still need a degree of flexibility to have mobility, strength and coordination are key. And you only need the degree of flexibility necessary to go through the “normal” range of motion for your body. In other words, you are not comparing yourself to a yogi, professional athlete, or even some ablest notion of “normal” - just what your body is potentially capable of and needs in order to complete ordinary actions for your daily life or any sports you might wish to participate in. This focus on ordinary daily actions is often referred to more specifically as “functional mobility.”
Unfortunately, the term “mobility” means a lot of different things to different people, so if you google it you will also find a lot of videos that have very bad avice from unqualified people. I not a doctor, personal trainer, or professional of any kind myself, so I can only share my own experience and what worked for me. Anyone reading this should consult a doctor, personal trainer, physical therapist, or other trained professional before starting a regime of their own.
It is also the case that there is only so much you can learn from YouTube, at some point you will need to work with a personal trainer. Mobility training requires a degree of individual attention that makes it less affordable and accessible than what you can do in a group class, like yoga or pilates. I was shocked when I first realized how expensive a good trainer can be, but you don’t need to work with them all the time. Ideally you should start off with a two or three month session to learn the basics, then have regular follow up sessions to check and improve your technique. You can work on your own for much of the rest of the time. It helps, though, to regularly film yourself and critically evaluate your own technique, or have a workout buddy who will watch you and and give feedback.
As I understand it, mobility training involves three core practices: assessment, correction, and strength. You will start with assessing limitations to your functional mobility. Do you have tight hip flexors, weak glutes, lack of mobility in your thoracic spine, lack of shoulder mobility? Ideally you would have done this already with a doctor or physical therapist before you start your practice, but you also need to continually re-evaluate your mobility, since your body is constantly changing. If you recall from my first post, after I opened up my tight adductors, my problem shifted to my hip flexors because I hadn’t yet addressed the problem of my weak glutes. This is why continual assessment and re-evaluation is so important to a mobility training regime. Strength training, too, works as a form of assessment. As you progressively add load to your workouts, new areas of weakness and instability will be revealed. (Which is another reason why having a personal trainer is so important.)
Such corrections are often done as a warmup before you do the strength training stage. These might include myofascial release (e.g. foam rolling), dynamic stretching (a topic I will take up in my next post), and targeted strength training for weak and underused muscles. In some cases the purpose is simply to wake up those muscles before doing the strength training so that your body remembers to use them. I have to do this with my glutes.
One of the mainstays of mobility training is the squat. If you’ve ever seen an older person who can’t get up from a chair without using their hands, you will understand the importance of squats for basic functional mobility. The mechanics of a squat a directly relevant to a wide range of common bodily motions, like walking, jumping, running, and lifting heavy objects. Although it looks simple a squat is actually a very complicated movement that requires tremendous coordination, engaging multiple muscles in a way that makes it a much better “core” exercise than traditional planks. Every able bodied person should be able to squat to at least ninety degrees, and most are capable of going much lower than that with training. It is important not to go any further down than you are capable of without losing your form, but as you practice and work on some of the limiting factors (like stiff ankles), you will probably learn that you can go much further down than you ever thought possible.
Dr. Aaron Horschig at Squat University is a physical trainer and strength coach who actively promotes squats as a key facet of mobility training, and I have learned a lot from him. His archive of blog posts and YouTube videos includes videos and articles that can help you diagnose common inhibiting factors (such as tight hip flexors) and offer advice on how to fix them.
Obviously, there is a lot more to mobility training than just squats, but squats are a great place to start since they can teach you about your body’s current limitations and help you learn important techniques that will transfer to other forms of mobility training. I never thought I’d be the kind of person who watches YouTube videos about squats, but doing mobility training has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.1 I even got my wife hooked on it, and it has helped her tremendously with her back.2
As I said at the beginning, mobility training is very different from flexibility training. It is more concerned with extending your “range of motion” (ROM) while your muscles are engaged than it is with the length of your muscles at rest. This does not mean, however, that you shouldn’t be doing any stretching. In my next post I will look more at the question of stretching as well as some other approaches to expanding your range of motion.
Strength training has been shown to significantly reduce chronic back pain, although it is essential that you approach it carefully and get proper training and advice before you start.↩︎